Monday, September 4, 2017

Release and reset

When you've had multiple negative rides in a row, there's really only one goal worth working toward:  have a positive ride.  I love the fact that I know mi papi well enough at this point that I can make a positive ride happen.  No matter what's going on, no matter the weather, no matter the causes, I can make a ride pleasant.  I have cookies.  So many cookies.

I got on today with about a quarter pound of treats in my pocket.  I would have a pleasant ride, damn it.

Theo's a positive reinforcement pony, a lot of the progress we've made has been built on pets and cookies.  He has no natural work ethic.  If you punish him, his reaction is basically 'wait until you see what I do to you for that'.  When things get difficult, I can fight with him (and probably lose) or I can go to what I know works.  No trainer I've ever worked with has supported my positive reinforcement training.  Ever.  No One.  They universally roll their eyes and accuse me of spoiling my horse.  So I just do it on my own and ignore the commentary. When they're pleased with the results, I smile and carry on.

After my Saturday ride, we were furious with each other and my left shoulder hurt so much I wasn't sure I was going to be able to get my saddle off.  I said stretch, he said no, I said do it now, he said no, and then I tried to push the matter.  He's stronger than me.  My left shoulder quit and he had me on the ropes.  I was ready to get those draw reins out for the simple reason that he was dragging through the contact, running me into the wall, and getting his rewarding release due to being stronger than me.  I made myself back up, compromise, end in a good spot, and go for a trail ride.  But I was so ready to put a big ol' bit in his mouth and tell him no more!  No more dragging on me until my shoulder fails because you know you can outlast me!  He shouldn't get a reward for pulling until I can't physically stop him!

Today I broke down the negative behavior.  Theo likes to stretch down and release, he's figured that out, but it's not a locked in behavior.  He doesn't really 'get' that I'm looking for that.  It's just an exercise, not a behavior to offer.  I decided to lock that behavior in.  For our warm up, I'd get a big, chewing, to the ankles stretch (with his nose in) in the walk and then he'd get a pet and a cookie.  Repeat about ten times.  Then I sat and waited.  Sure enough, with no action from me, he gave me a big stretch and chew, hanging out there until I pet him and gave him a treat.  And on we went, him offering the behavior and me rewarding it.  I weaned him off of the cookies fairly quickly since it's a behavior he knows and added the cue back in so he did something other than drop his head and chew, but the trick was to get him to do it on his own, to offer the behavior rather than push him into it.  He's the king of offering behaviors when he thinks he'll get a cookie for it.  If he sees it as a thing that I will reward for, he will offer it happily.

I was able to get him walking, trotting, and cantering with a big stretch and a light, non-painful for me contact pretty easily.  He enjoys it, he enjoys being told how smart he is, and he enjoys getting cookies.  It was wonderful to see him chewing away and lots of foam around his bit in both directions.  He was relaxed and happy.  He was also behind my leg.

Now this is the part that's probably going to take me weeks.  I need to add forward without losing the chill.  I played with it today, finding the tipping point between chill and negative tension.  I don't think Theo is good at managing positive tension yet and it all tends to tip over into negative tension.  I start to create positive tension, I start to feel power and forward, and then it snaps and I have a braced, non-existent connection with fast feet.  It's a pretty concrete reaction.  We're good, we're good, we're good, we are DONE.

Okay, I can work with that.  He has a point where he mentally feels like he can't take any more and he quits.  It's ridiculously close to going as slow as molasses in January, but I'm not here to judge.  Okay, yes, I'm totally here to judge, but it's where it is and I need to work with it.  I ditched my whip because that brings in too much negative right now.  I tried gradually building and when he pushed past his previous wall, he got big pats and I removed the pressure.  I wanted him to see that I won't, in fact, press forever.  And with each iteration, I want him to go a little further.  Push a bit more, handle a bit more pressure before I back off again.  And when he just coped?  Pats!  Many pats!  Cookies!  All the good things.

It's going to be slow.  Very slow.  I can get quick feet and power now, but it's braced and pissy or it's due to the influence of another.  Getting him to give me that power without the bracing and negative tension is going to take a lot of time and work.  And cookies and pats.  He doesn't like to work hard, he needs to know that there's something in it for him.  Any behavior can be shaped if you're patient enough and have enough rewards.  I will buy those treats in bulk if that's what it takes.  I did have a few moments of a completely tracking up pony that was also stretching nicely to my hand without my shoulders screaming in pain.  When I got off today, my shoulder felt okay.  And he was like jello again, relaxed and happy.

I'm glad I chose to not get the draw reins out.  This was a better lesson.  I want him to offer the behavior, not be shoved into it.  I can't fall into the trap of taking the mechanical advantage.  If my shoulder is too weak to ride in that heavy of a contact, then I'm just going to have to find another way.  He will always be stronger than me.  I better be smarter than him.  You get more flies with honey.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Two steps forward . . .

One step back.

Not surprisingly, considering someone's sudden behavioral issues and distraction due to being a schoolmaster, we had a setback for our Mary lesson on Friday.  After three lessons were we showed marked improvement, we had a lesson where it was 'what happened?'.  Mi papi was not having it with this idea of stretch down and go forward at the same time.  Just not having it.  It was the exact same stuck feeling I'd been having since he started having his August blow up.  He wasn't going to give and stretch, so you could just go pound sand.

Poor Mary.  She had to get up and chase us with the lunge whip for most of our lesson.  As she put it, it's all I can do to manage the neck right now, someone else has to manage the butt.  Theo had locked me out again.  Not as bad as our first lesson, but not nearly the nice connection we had in our third lesson.  We've had a relapse while trying to find the forward.  It was all we could do to get to the point where we could trot and canter in a stretch in both directions.  My shoulders were absolutely killing me and my left hand was throbbing so much.

Oh, right, I took a massive chunk out of my knuckle on my left hand while cleaning my trailer.  Just my luck.  I was getting some sawdust off the ramp while it was up and managed to bash against the window frame in a perfect way.  Blood.  Everywhere.  I wrapped it up, asked a nurse friend, and was told it wasn't a candidate for stitches.  Elevate, pressure, ice, carry on.  I wore a glove on that hand to make sure the bandaid stayed put.  I looked like Michael Jackson.

So our lesson was brief but brutal.  I got a firm comment on my fitness.  It's fair, I'm only riding three times a week right now.  It won't do.  It's hard to get us both fit at the same time.  I need to ride more, be more fit.  Her working student could have mi papi bouncing along like a firecracker, but she rides seven horses a day.  I remember being that fit.  It was a long time ago.

So we've been ordered back to downtown and to find someone that will chase us with a lunge whip.  It really is the best way to get him popping along as opposed to trying to pop me off.  I didn't find any volunteers last time, now it's a number one priority.  I'm sure I can find someone if I try hard enough.  Who would think it would be hard to find someone to chase me around with a whip?  You'd think I'd have a line!  But yeah, we need to find someone to chase us because holy crap he's powerful once he's done being resistant.  Mary managed to shove us through the wall and get us clicking again.  My goodness he's got a lot to offer once he's going.  Both shoulders were aching, my legs were shaking, my hand throbbing, no damn oxygen, but we got him to stretch to the dirt and chew while cantering.  That woman does not give up.

It's going to be an interesting couple of months.  Mary is traveling at the end of September, so I'm going to do two more lessons in a row.  Yikes.  And then in the beginning of October when both his leaser and I are traveling, I'm dropping him off with Mary for some boot camp.  He's going to get a week or two of 'love' from the working students under Mary's supervision rather than sitting in his field or teaching beginners.  It'll be good for him!  And then Mary can teach me what else I'm doing wrong after Theo's been worked properly for a couple weeks.  Sure, he may eat her barn and try to kill her employees, but I did warn her.  It's ethical to warn her that my horse was pretty dramatic in his dark past and might lose his shit with zero warning.

Today we trail ride.  We've been super intense lately, I want to make sure we keep things positive.  We're coming out the other side of the temper tantrum, I need to make sure he's well rewarded for his return to work.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Falling out of love

I'm sure a lot of people saw this coming, but as a friend told me last night, it looks like I'm falling out of love with Trainer A.

I'm tired of having my lessons rescheduled and bounced around.  I'm tired of feeling like I need to question what I'm being told.  I'm tired of not being ready and not realizing it until I'm already at the show.  I'm definitely tired of feeling like I should hide at shows because I'm there with riders that aren't ready for what they're doing and it's embarrassing. 

It's an awkward situation.  I had a lesson this morning (7am because that was the only availability after my Saturday jumping lesson got cancelled) that wasn't at all positive.  Theo was giving me the stink eye about flexing and going forward at the same time.  It's our latest battle and one that will take awhile since he needs to develop a lot more muscle before it stops being a struggle.  He currently drops behind my leg and then bucks when I use the whip to reinforce my leg.  He'll flex, sure, but only if he can go slow.  He'll go forward so long as he isn't connected and flexing.  Combine the two and it's just too hard for him to deal with because he's a special little princess.

 Very, very special

She wanted me to open my inside rein and guide his muzzle in.  Not like a little bit, because yes, opening up my inside hand is a useful thing to do at times.  She wanted it way open.  I finally threw down and said no, I wouldn't, because I don't want him to break at the shoulder, I want him to break at the poll.  I lose control of the neck when I open my inside rein like that.  I have a very tiny target and I will never, ever get it with an open inside rein.  He's way too good at evading.  I have better results with a correction that's slightly indirect, then release, the way Mary told me to do it.  And if he doesn't give, get after him but you have to release every time.  No 'guiding', he flexes and stays there because he was told to, not because he's being 'guided'.  Sure enough, after a couple of reps, he started to give.  He was just being stubborn about it, trying to see if he could wear me out.  It's his favorite trick.  Once he started to give and chew, we were able to move on in the lesson.  And suddenly she was instructing me to use that half halt to get the flex instead of the open rein.  I think she was genuinely wrong and I'm just now figuring it out.

Theo and I are now pushing our ways through all of the struggles I probably should have had over the past two years.  Submission to the bit, submission to the leg, impulsion, not bucking to get out of work, etc.  The stuff he is most resistant on.  No, do not tell me to slow the tempo right now, I want his hind legs to snap.  I can always slow this horse down, now I need to teach him to pick up the tempo when I ask.  I need both sides of the pendulum.  He's pulling through my left rein, my left shoulder has failed, I need to try something else.  But there's nothing else she can give me to try.  Don't tell me to pick his head up, he'll retract his neck and brace.  Downtown is his home, he only gets to come up when he's relaxed, hauling his head up isn't going to get him off his shoulders all by itself.

I don't like this.  I don't like change, but I also don't like having two disparate views.  And after bumping into Mary at the show where Theo was carting his leaser around, I watched her adult ammy warm up.  She was prepared.  She was very prepared for the level.  Her horse was together and ready to go.  Not perfect, the indoor was super scary!  But definitely prepped and ready to go lay down a trip.  Her student was confident in the work and you could tell it was bread and butter for them.

As my friend said last night, that's what showing is supposed to be.  Not an exercise in survival.  And she was pleased to hear that I was finally remembering that.  Theo may be a half cart horse mutt (or a short angry goat as he was dubbed over beers, another story for another post), but he's a correct mover and perfectly capable of good scores at the lower levels.  Good scores being upper 60's.  If I'm not consistently getting upper 60's at Training, what the hell did I think I was doing at First?  Don't blame the horse, the horse is fine.  You just weren't ready.

Totally not ready and got a 57% to prove it

This is the same friend that tore into me about the spur rubs.  It's important to have educated, honest horse friends.  I wish she didn't live so far away, she'd come out and chase me with a lunge whip to inspire forward any day.  That's a real horse friend.

The realization is settling in and I'm still shifting my viewpoint to this new reality.  I haven't really figured out what to do.  I don't want to change barns, Mary's barn is too fancy and far away so I'd still be trailering out for lessons.  Most barns want you to be in a program with them.  Theo is happy at his barn, with his shed and field and 24/7 turn out and pony to beat up.  I may just need to take a break from my weekly lessons and training ride, take responsibility for my horse's training back.  He'd still have his leaser, but be mostly my problem.

I really hate change.  This may take awhile.  But the process is getting started.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Definition of good

I'm not sure if my horse was good or not.  It's a weird sensation.

His leaser had done one, maybe two shows in her life.  When I heard she was signed up to do Training 1 and Training 2 at a sanctioned dressage show, I was rather surprised.  Really?  I thought it was a schooling show.  Steering and going is still a bit spotty.  But hey, it's a dressage show.  It should be fine.

But of course, Theo is his own beast.  He goes or he doesn't.  It doesn't matter what you do.  If he's not in the mood, you can forget it.  He jumps out of rings, spins, bucks, and generally does what he wants.  With me, he's figured out his job.  With Trainer A, he's sorted out enough of a relationship to go in and do his job, though it's still a bit spotty in places.  With his leaser?  Well, it's a much less balanced relationship.  She tells him to do things, and he usually does.  Because he likes cookies and pets and ear rubs and she doesn't ask him to do anything hard.  She demands nothing.

On Sunday, she asked him to do something hard and I wanted to puke because I was on the sidelines and could do nothing to help.  He'd never been to this show.  The whole thing was rather overwhelming for his leaser with a big, sweeping facility and official show secretary stuff.

He handled warm up like a champ.  Absolute champ.  Even when a horse nearly mowed him down, he coped and didn't give her a bit of trouble.  For that alone, we're all grateful.  She'd never done a warm up like that and the fact he let her manage traffic while he minded his manners?  Priceless.

Test one, he walked in very nicely.  Gave her one spook on the outside, but went down centerline like a champ.  He gave her one real spook heading toward C in the canter, but she booted him along and he coped.  The test was overall good with some piloting errors.  Her circles were too small, her focus points out of whack in the large arena.  He started to canter at one point, thinking he was doing a First level test.  Otherwise, he was very good.  He got a 57%, which was a fair score when her geometry was out of whack.  She came out smiling because she's pulled it off.

After a break we went back for test two.  Lo and behold, papi was tired and didn't want to play.  I knew because when we went to head down, he bulged out the left shoulder and tried to turn around.  He only does that when he's decided he's done.  Shit.  SHIT.  His leaser hasn't seen that behavior.  It's not easy to manage.  If you overcorrect, he explodes.  If you ignore it, he leaves.  You have to finesse him along.  Or correct him and take the explosion.

Trainer A was reading for his leaser and was able to casually walk with her into the ring.  Since they both had to go the same way, right?  And it was an opportunity class, everyone wanted her to have a good day.  When he started to refuse to go around the outside, his leaser did a great job of sitting through it and Trainer A quietly talked her through it.  They went down center line, halted, and he tried to turn again.  She booted him along, won the argument, and finished her test.  Steering errors and a seriously wonky entrance cost her points, but 54% is a lot better than an E.  She seriously needs to practice 20m circles in a large arena.  Theo defaults to 15m now and, well, he gets to drive a lot more with her than he does with me.

So was he a good boy?  I dunno.  Trainer A was pretty livid at his stunt at the start of the second test.  He's done so many shows, he has no excuse for that nonsense.  However, having sat and managed so much of what he can throw, he really didn't throw anything at her.  He was a bit spooky on one, a bit baulky on another.  For him?  That was pretty dang minor.

She has no connection or real control over his body.  It was a wake up call for me, how much he relies on me taking control and telling him to focus, that I had things under control, that he was safe because I say so.  He's brave because I am.  His leaser doesn't have that relationship with him yet.  He went around the ring out of nothing but the goodness of his heart.  The fact that he has a 'goodness of his heart' is actually quite new.

Was he good?  For him, yes.  He didn't try to dump her, attack anyone, bronc, spin, or be dangerous.  He was a bit of a jerk instead of a dangerous horse.  Was he good for most horses?  No.  He was looky in his first test and flat out quit on the second one.  I feel proud of his leaser that she managed him, got him turned around, and rode with finesse beyond her experience.

Will she show him again?  Yes, absolutely, she actually enjoyed herself.  He packed her through the parts she found scary and she didn't get rattled by his behaviors.  Because she walked in, he didn't have the power to explode outside of the ring.  She's scheduled to do a two phase with 18" fences in October.  That gives us a month or so to teach her the basics of managing Theo when he's trying to look around.  I didn't want to give her a scare before her show, but now, I think she's ready to have a bomb proofing lesson.  She realized she didn't have the right tools when he started to look because he never looks at home.  So time to add a new tool for her.

She's excited to take that next step in being a rider, to start learning to manipulate her horse's body.  So yeah, I think Sunday was a win.  And I think he was a good boy.  As good as can be expected from mi papi.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Two phase pic spam

Turns out that I did have a photographer for my two phase show.  With no further ado, mi papi at our two phase at Beginner Novice!

First off, the dressage phase where we got a 27 despite him throwing a temper tantrum due to a water truck being in the wrong place.  He sure doesn't look like a brat, does he.

I love this picture.  I love this picture so much. 

And then on to the jumping phase.  My pony's got hops!  No courage, but lots of hops.

After refusing the red oxer, I guess this counts as turning off the outside rein? 

Get over it, papi!  Also, Catie, don't jump ahead when your horse is stopping, do you want to die?

Holy crap, Theo, it's 2'6", not 3'6"!

 Kind of flaily on take off on my part, but it was a super nice, straight, forward line from mi papi and you can see that he's just toying with this height

Flaws he has, but he is certain photogenic.


There you are

The thing I love about my horse is that he is, 99% of the time, very safe.  Even when he's being a jackass, there's a good chance I can make him stop.  I own nothing but snaffles.

And then he goes and pulls a bronco seemingly out of nowhere.  And then Trainer A rides him and texts me saying 'he was a total pig'.

We talked during a lesson on Wednesday and on Monday, she was so frustrated with him she could barely see straight.  All of their progress, right out the window.  All he wanted to do was stomp his feet and pull on the reins.  He also took a shot at her, which he hasn't done in almost a year.

A year, you say?  Oh what a coincidence.  I told her about my posts from one year ago and how he has his little temper tantrum each year at this time.   And the look on her face was classic.  All of a sudden she remembered last year at this time and what a puke he was.  She said she put him on the lunge line on Tuesday before she got on and he put on quite a show of bucking and squealing.  Then she got on and he was a lot less piggish, just stuck and not wanting to flex evenly.

Today I got on with the goal of forward, forward, forward.  Not the nose out forward I'd used in the past.  I still wanted my connection, but I was not going to let him keep stomping his feet and being a brat.  The absolute best thing for him in this mood is to break through the resistance and let the energy out.  With Trainer A's work to get the bucks out (while I was stuck working late), I got my horse back today.  He started with some head shaking and generally unsociable behavior but once he got up in front of my leg, he was back.

Flex in both directions, stop, start, steer.  Only one kick out and that was for the whip.  We had some more evasions than usual, but nothing dramatic.  He was back to work today.  Trainer A and I were both completely relieved to see that, in the end, all he needed was a chance to get the temper tantrum out of his system with the dropping temps.

With his schoolmaster gig this Sunday, he'll lunge again on Saturday to make sure all bucks are out.  He'll be ridden every day (sometimes twice) until the show to make sure nothing builds up.  And then I just have to believe that he knows his job.  He'll go in that ring, trot down center line, and sigh because he knows what to do.  He's a dressage horse and he understands the sandbox.

I'd forgotten how stressed out I get when I let people show my horse.  Please, please, papi, be a good boy.  Good boys get cookies, days off, and lazy hacks.

Sunday, August 20, 2017


We've been here before.  In 2015, we were having the abscess wars, so I had no idea what was Theo and what was the fact that we were fighting lameness for two months.  August 30th of that year did have this post, though. August 26, 2016 we had this.  It appears that when the heat breaks and the first hints of fall show up, Theo loses his gods damned mind.  The heat broke a little early this year, it's been gorgeous out.

Wednesday he was a bit up with his leaser, giving her some trouble on his trail ride.  Nothing dirty, but it was her first introduction to 'stud mode' and that's always interesting.  I rode him Thursday night and he gave me a big head shake and little strike with the front feet when he was corrected for throwing his shoulders.  He generally overreacted to corrections and was heavy in the bridle.  Huh.

I already wrote up my lesson where he was a bit temperamental and distracted.  Quick with the front feet, quick to bite, stomping his feet in his work, not wanting to go forward, oooooh, I know what this is.  Mary chased him forward into the big work he needed and he was jello afterward.  He was good on Saturday for his leaser since he was tired from our lesson.  Today it was my turn for a bit of cross training.  The plan for the day was a long trail ride with lots of hill work.  We never made it to the trails.

He was fine when I brought him in, but I noted he was a bit rude about his blanket coming off.  Old bad behaviors resurfacing.  Yeah, no, nipping this in the bud.  Ground work was a go.  I swung on afterward and headed out.  The Ritz was open so I decided to do two laps of hill work in each direction before setting out.  Staying home turned out to be a good call.  He was just up, distracted, looky, and generally not interested in my input.  Several times he did his little mare squeal buck combo.  Most horses work down, papi tends to work up until I get to the bottom of the problem, so the ride got more challenging as we went.  He didn't want to flex correctly, he wanted to crane his head and look outside of the circle.  He didn't want to put his head down and power up the hills, he wanted to look like a giraffe.  He didn't want to go forward unless it was a bolt.

He finally let go and gave me an all out bronc once we were jumping some little logs. I went to collect him coming off of a downhill and he just threw a huge fit.  Jump buck jump buck jump while grunting and squealing.  What the actual fuck, papi.  Then he braced his legs and dared me to kick him again.

I had a split second of wanting to get the hell off of that horse because he was looking to toss me.  He's got a big damn bronc and I was so thankful I had him in my jumping tack where I can ride through it without the saddle fighting me.  But if I got off, who else was going to get on?  I knew that would be the worst possible move.  He was being a bully and trying to scare me.  Last time he pulled this, I didn't have a full set of tools.  This time, I was ready.  Want to have a hissy when I use my leg?  Let's see you buck while your legs are crossing.  Turn on the forehand, disengage the hind quarters, drop your head and flex.  Now turn on the haunches, marching, get your head down.  Go forward, go forward right the fuck now.  Now leg yield.  Halt, back up, half passe, trot off in a steep shoulder in.

It completely stopped the cycle.  Theo seriously didn't know what to do with that response.  He would try to scoot, but he was going sideways and it just made things harder for him.  I can control his shoulders now.  He'd try to throw them and I shove him back the other way.  He tried to tear through the reins but I already had his number.  He balked and I could safely kick him through it.  He was rip shit, but he didn't have a lot of choices.  He was so relieved to go straight ahead that he didn't try to fling his shoulders and bolt.  If he started to be an ass, he went sideways.  He didn't want to go sideways any more, so he'd settle.  Then I'd trot forward quietly and leave him be.

Once the lesson was jammed into his tiny pony brain, we jumped the two logs on a soft feel, no bucks, stopped straight.  Long rein, many cookies, and long walk to cool out.  He was blowing hard.  The whole ride had been up and down hill, working on uneven footing.  He's going to have a sore tush tomorrow, I expect.  I was going to feel bad for him, but when I turned him out, he had a bucking, farting gallop.  I guess I didn't find the bottom of it.

Should be tired.  He's not.

His leaser has her first real dressage show on Sunday.  FML.

I have to find the bottom of Theo before Saturday.  Fortunately this nonsense usually only lasts a week or two, we should already be managing the worst of it.  It just means that there will be a whole lot of sweaty saddle pads this week as we work through it.  It's not evasion or naughty, he just feels really good with the heat gone and needs to get it out.  At least this time I have all of the tools installed so I can short circuit the behavior before he crosses the line into dangerous.  We'll tag team him this week, get those energy levels down and ride him outside as much as possible.  I can't give him the gallop he needs when he's unrideable, but I need to gallop him hard to get the bucks out of him.  Oh, what a quandary.

I'm going to try to squeak in an extra lesson this week to get a tune up on his ground manners with our natural horsemanship trainer.  Chain shank/rope halter/bridle and dressage whip for at least a week to make sure this stays under control.  He's so damn fast with those front feet when he's like this.

He's lucky he's cute and only pulls this nonsense once a year.